Book Review: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translation by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky)

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What is there to say about War and Peace that hasn’t been written? It is known as one of the great Russian novels, and yet it isn’t really a novel. Even Tolstoy acknowledged that it is neither a novel, or a history (or an epic poem). It sits on its own, quite unlike any book I’ve read before. There is a fabulous love story, woven between Tolstoy’s philosophising and essays about war, history and the greatness (or otherwise) of Napoleon.

War and Peace, depicts Russia’s war with Napoleon and its effects on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. He creates some of the most vital and involving characters in literature as he follows the rise and fall of families in St Petersburg and Moscow who are linked by their personal and political relationships. His heroes are the thoughtful yet impulsive Pierre Bezukhov, his ambitious friend, Prince Andrei, and the woman who becomes indispensable to both of them, the enchanting Natasha Rostov.

It is a daunting book – of course it is. It was to me, anyway, which is what the Reading Challenge digs away at. However, very soon into it, it wasn’t such a tower of a book. Some said the number (and names) of the characters was overwhelming. Maybe initially, but not distractingly so. War and Peace makes you want to work hard as a reader, as the rewards are great. Tolstoy is an astonishingly good observer of people, writing War and Peace before Freud was out of short trousers. His understanding of motivation, development makes for rounded characters that need to discover something before they can be who they need to be. None more evident than in Pierre Bezukhovf and Natasha Rostov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who is a kind of bridge between them.

The insights to Russian nobility is intriguing, and the reader is thrown into the heart of society in the opening chapter, at a party of Anna Pavlovna, and the heart of what seems to matter. The language of the court was French, which the translation maintains, to great effect.

Tolstoy writes from all perspectives, as the reader moves from character to character, right in their mind and thoughts. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Tolstoy is the narrator and owner. War and Peace ebbs and flows between the story and his narratives, with these rambling reflective views on war and power and history, and… At times they are repetitive, and dry. None more so than the epilogue. It is the writing of the story that Tolstoy’s writing comes to life. This is the artist engaging us with history, and it is like a light shining on the words. Some passages are achingly tender, like Prince Andrei believing he is dying on the battlefield.

War and Peace does not shy away from the ravages of war, and successfully portrays the impact on the ordinary Russian folk. The peasants, the infantrymen, and those below the Russian aristocracy. Tolstoy’s detail is astonishing – reflecting the five years he spend on his epic. It is the contrast between war and peace, and the change that it has on Pierre and Natalie that makes the story.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy, and devour War and Peace. I hadn’t expected to consider reading it again. I imagine the rewards will be rich. It is a keeper of a book.

War & Peace was part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book that intimidates you

Oh what a world we live in…

There is indeed an ugly mood at the moment. Information comes fast in thick torrents of bubbling, chattering, and endless streams. Oh what a world we live in. There is no chance to breathe, at times, and you feel like you’re drowning. We are exposed to more and more extremes, and these filter down into our consciousness, and into our collective behaviour. In one week we lament the death of the inspirational Muhammad Ali; the next it seems we have forgotten anything he ever said.

Oh what a world we live in. We are collectively shocked by the execution, on one of our streets, of Jo Cox, in a brutal attack by a man fuelled by hatred. Yet hatred has become currency for a xenophobic outbreak not seen in many years. It troubles me as much as it shames me. No one is surprised that English fans are again at the centre of violence in France. Neither is anyone shocked. No, we are ashamed. We are ashamed of their taunts, their idiocy.

They are not my Britain.

My Britain is neither those that preach hate and intolerance of others, and incite it in others. UKIP’s latest poster for the Brexit campaign is utterly deplorable. It is about time UKIP’s leader is called for his behaviour, rather than being dismissed as a comic buffoon. That said, there has been a lack of dignity that has run through both campaigns in the EU Referendum. I watched one debate – no one appealed to me. No wonder people in this plebiscite are confused. Has it really taken the murder of Jo Cox to stop them all in their tracks? The media that stokes them included.

The pathways of tolerance, acceptance, of kindness even seem to be lost to us. It is up to us to clear the way.  Oh what a world we live in. No wonder the internet is filled with pictures of kittens.

I’m reminded of Rufus Wainwright’s beautiful song, the running line through my thoughts. Lest we forget.

Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline?

“Life is Beautiful”

Wellbeing post-surgery

I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Initially it was patience – thanks to the unnamed Doctor in Treliske who told me I needed to learn to be patient; it stopped me being frustrated and angry. I also think there’s a simple appreciation that comes from surviving and recovering. 100 years ago, I would have been in the most excruciating, ongoing pain, which would have driven me insane, if the trauma hadn’t killed me in the first place. The cold I had a few weeks ago would have surely infected the lung, and who knows what would have happened. Modern medicine, our NHS is incredible. I am incredibly grateful for both – even if it was, initially at least, so frustrating.

Drug-fog dulled my mind for a goodly while. However, long after I stopped taking the pain relief, I felt very ‘shut down’. Everything slowed – my body, my mind, my expectations. I became a fan of the afternoon nap! I spent a lot of time staring in to space, sometimes knitting, mostly with Radio 6Music for company. I didn’t read as much as I thought I might; I simply didn’t have the space for it. Although goodness knows what was in that head space. Brain fog. As for writing. I wasn’t interested; too much effort to join thoughts up.

It is in the last few weeks, with the onset of Physio and being able to do more that things have shifted again. One of the unexpected benefits of this pneumothorax recovery, is that Pete and I have been ‘forced’ to remain at home. We’d usually be off at this time of year, sailing. However, being at home has been a delight. Cornwall is glorious this time of year. People flock into Cornwall at this time of year (and will do for the next three months) because it is gorgeous, The sun is warm, the gardens at their best – even the hedgerows are a sight to behold. The photo above is our garden! Pete has taken part in a couple of sailing events that he wouldn’t have done ordinarily. We have made new friends, and joined in with social activities more. It has caused me to question why we flee at this time of year, when being here is such a treat. Are we entering a new chapter? What does that mean for our Whinchat?  Our sailing adventures. I’m allowed to sail now, but not in anything lively – and it’s untested. I ironed six shirts the other day, and that aggravated my recovering shoulder muscles. Ironing, however, is easy to avoid!

We’re about to set off on a different adventure, because we’re not away sailing. We’re travelling through France (fingers crossed there’s fuel, and that we avoid anything to do with football), in the car that Pete built. Time sitting alongside each other will provide ample opportunity for rambling discussions. Who knows where this trip will take us, but it feels so positive and exciting to be going.

 

 

Book Review: A Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

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My friend Karen said that this was one of the best books that she had ever read. She has repeatedly told me to read it (particularly recently given some potential lifestyle alterations). I am grateful for her insistence.

A Shepherd’s Life is the story of James Rebanks, a shepherd farming in the remote Cumbrian landscape. The blurb on Penguin’s website (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/270728/the-shepherd-s-life/) is thus: “Some people’s lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks’ isn’t. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.”

However, this isn’t really the story of the book in many ways.

Rebanks’ account is separated into four sections, the seasons that dominate the pattern of farming life. The first section, Summer, is the longest in the book (at a third), and for me the most fragmented. It reads like a collection of memories, reflections on growing up. A jumble of bloggy-style snippets. It took me some time to gel with Rebanks, initially someone not particularly likeable. A drop out of school, a bully, judgemental, overall a bit arrogant. Yet it was the thread of his passion, his faith, and his love for his farming life that sustained me. I was also puzzled as to how a man who left school, with barely any skills in writing, could articulate so well in print. The ‘hook’ for me came in the transition from Summer to Autumn, at his grandfather’s death.

In Autumn, Rebanks begins to grow up, and grow as a man. Rebanks writes with simplicity, honesty, and at times breathtaking clarity. A Shepherd’s Life isn’t written with sentimentality, yet it is a profound and moving read. The writing is engaging, it is like Rebanks is talking to you, and for that I forgive the spattering of clichés, and repetition.

In Winter the harshness of the shepherding life is revealed, with insights in to the routines of the days when snow lies thickly over the landscape. Decisions that are made in moments affect the lives of the precious flocks. You feel a part of team Rebanks, his writing is so vivid.

The book ends with Spring, and the optimism that accompanies it. Lambing, and the roles of his daughters on the farm. The book ends with Rebanks’ deep appreciation of where he is, and who he is. It is a perfect ending.

“This is my life. I want no other.”

The things that interested me in A Shepherd’s Life, apart from the human geography of farming in this tough, rugged landscape, was Rebanks himself. The economical truth of farming – many farmers need a second income, with Rebanks no different (as a consultant to UNESCO on how communities can benefit from tourism). A position earned because he wanted to live in Cumbria, on the farm his Grandfather loved. Rebanks became an educated man. He became what he despised as a boy, a student. These aspects of his development are not really explored – neither the anti-Wordsworth, tourist-loathing boy that now has a different view. Parts of his book are glossed over, but that says as much about my interest as a lack of depth in his story.

I love this book, but to use a cliché, it wasn’t love at first sight. This gradual unveiling of a truth and beauty, and a fundamental respect, and envy, of a man deeply rooted in his landscape and way of life. A Shepherd’s Life is a gem of a book, if a little unpolished in places. But isn’t that life?

This book is part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child or BFF.

Fourteen weeks post-surgery

Since the last post (whoops, meant to be a bit more consistent on this one), I have shaken the feeling of being trapped by my body, by time, and by circumstance.

The watershed came at about six weeks post-surgery, when I had the follow-up appointment with Mr Arwan.  Freedom came in the ability to drive my new car (delivered when I was unable to drive, how cruel!), as this brought about independence. I could do exciting things like drive to the supermarket (not that I could lift very much). I also started Physio, with the rather brilliant Oliver Hughes. He has been the one to give me more permission to try things, therefore feeding my confidence. He has also worked on the damage caused by the surgery to my poor old shoulder blades – and back… and shoulder… parts of my body that are compensating for the lack of stability in the shoulder. Don’t get me wrong, it has been excruciating (none more so than the manipulation of number one rib…). I have gradually been able to add the things I do. Nordic walking is back on, although I am not at the speeds that I was (that’s a lung capacity issue, as I can’t quite get the oxygen I need into my blood to drive the muscles, but that will come). Sailing, I can probably try in a week or so. Gig rowing. Ollie said that this was the worst possible in terms of the damage in my body – probably not until the autumn. You can’t have it all.

As to the pain. I read on some forums that people recovering from lung surgery are living with pain. I can’t say that’s true for me. My ribs are sore at times, not kicked by a horse sore, not even kicked by a large dog sore, but over-used sore. Ollie put that in context – you can’t rest your ribs or lungs like you can a damaged knee… if they’re resting, you’re dead. I don’t bother with pain killers, just ease up a little bit. Pick up my book instead of driving myself too hard. I still can’t lie on my left side at night, but I sleep well now. The rib pain is likely to last another 10-12 months. Mr Arwan apologised to that – apparently they had to bend and stretch a few things to get to the torn lung. Nice.

I like having exercises to do – and I’m disciplined in doing them. Pilates based to strengthen my core. I can’t do anything more than very basic movements, as the pain is intense sort of “under” my left rib-cage. Could be intercostal muscles, could be the transverse abs. I can’t plank any more (and I could in January, for well over a minute). I can’t support my legs raised off the ground (like a supine leg lift), so it’s all with one foot on the floor. I’m back working with Kate, my lovely PT, who is supporting (and challenging) me. I’ve even picked up a kettle bell again. It’s amazed her in the last couple of weeks the progress I’ve made. There is a hill behind the house that we use for cardio work. Two weeks ago, due to the limitations of the lung, I could only get my heart rate up to 140bpm. In-between sessions I pounded the hill a few times. Yesterday we attacked it again, and I could push my body harder. 158bpm. You can improve when you invest in yourself.

That’s the body. All on a very positive path to recovery. My mind? Well, that’s another story. A positive one. In the interests of good blogging etiquette (word count!), I won’t waffle on now, but save that for another day…

Book Review: A Perfectly Good Man, by Patrick Gale

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A Perfectly Good Man opens with 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, taking his own life in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish. The tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. A Perfectly Good Man is Barnaby Johnson, and the book simply is his story.

I loved everything about A Perfectly Good Man, and felt bereft when I had swiped over the last of the e-pages. Yes, it is about the local priest, Barnaby Johnson, but it is in the interaction of others in his past (revealed in his memories), his parish and his family that we build a picture of this perfectly good man. There is quite a roll call of characters, none of whom I can imagine the story without. Dorothy (his wife), Carrie (his daughter), Jim/Phuc (his adopted son), Nuala (a woman he stumbles upon), Lenny (the boy whose suicide he witnesses), and Modest Carlsson (a parishioner with a dark past) all add light and shade to Barnaby. Gale uses these characters as a multiple person perspective to shape what the reader believes and feels about Barnaby. It is cleverly crafted, so that it is you, the reader, that holds the threads of the story, and not a narrator. You know things that Barnaby doesn’t, and this allows you to make reflections and connections that he simply could not. This makes for a very powerful reading experience – where the reader is expected to do some of the work.

Gale not only gives us the story in multiple perspectives, but in a non-linear fashion too. Time is not chronological in the story, but this mirrors how memories and experiences link in. If anyone has ever spent time in therapy, then this is the reality of the human mind. It makes the story absorbing and more thought-provoking.

A Perfectly Good Man, with a priest as protagonist, examines faith in some detail. It is not a religious study, with relatively few scenes set in the church. We consider the ebb and flow of the spirituality of Barnaby, and its persistence through the presence of this good man in the work within his community. Barnaby is more honest with the reader, somehow, than he is with his own family. Perhaps it is Nuala, the woman he stumbles upon, certainly not one of his flock, that he allows glimpses of his ‘true’ self. Around the central theme of faith, is family, and the gossamer threads of the emotional ties that bind us. Barnaby is treated badly by his father, and in choosing his wife, Dorothy, chooses someone who also seems incapable of love. His own relationship with his adopted son, Jim/Phuc, has its own tragedies, all out of a sense of trying to do the right thing.

The character that troubled me the most, disturbed even, was Modest Carlsson. A man Barnaby ‘rescued’ early in his career, when in Portsmouth. Carlsson then came to seek him out, first in Portsmouth and then in Cornwall. Modest Carlsson, a convicted paedophile, is an odious character, who pursues Barnaby looking for chinks in his soul. Carlsson feels physically repulsive, through Gale’s craft, and reminds me of the grotesque Penguin played by Danny DeVito in a Batman film – Carlsson could be like Penguin gorging on fish like they were depraved souls.

It was great to ‘see’ Morwenna again in A Perfectly Good Man. Morwenna is the daughter of Rachel Kelly, the troubled artist, and protagonist, in Notes From An Exhibition. Morwenna suffered greatly in her family story, and it was heartening that Morwenna finds happier times in A Perfectly Good Man, not quite the ending of the book, but one of the closing scenes. The ending itself was deeply satisfying, ending not in time, but near the beginning, with the 8-year-old Barnaby sitting in the back of his father’s car. It is the birth of his faith, and the essence of the whole story.

In Barnaby, Gale reminds us that no one is perfect, but that shadows exist in all of us. That it is good enough to be A Perfectly Good Man, even if it means holding on to some truths yourself.

A Perfectly Good Man was sent to me as an e-book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Heartstone by C. J. Sansom

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Heartstone is the fifth in the brilliant series charting the investigations of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in King Henry VIII’s reign. It is Summer, 1545 and England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. Meanwhile, Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr, which brings Shardlake into the frontline of the naval battle.

Like the other books in the series, C. J. Sansom’s writing raises the sense of Tudor England from the pages, creating vivid images of the scenes in the reader’s mind. It is easy, at times, to forget that you are reading from a very different time frame. At others, it felt like the historical detail was overwritten. Too much description of costume, of weaponry, and mind-numbing detail of Portsmouth in preparation for battle, and of the Mary Rose itself. The weighty descriptions lead to a vast book, which I confess to skimming in places.

Of all the books in the series, Heartstone is the one that I have enjoyed the least. That said, it is still a worthwhile read. More than its predecessors, it feels more plot driven, over character. We know and understand Shardlake well, and that of his side-kick, Jack Barack, others seem more as outlines. Only when I had made it to the author’s notes at the end, when C. J.  Sansom revealed that a book about The Mary Rose was his editor’s suggestion, did it somehow make sense. The Mary Rose was incidental to both of the mysteries that Shardlake was on a mission to solve. Firstly, the Queen’s mission to solve a case in The Court of Wards and the second one, his own, to uncover the truth behind why a young girl, Ellen, had been placed in Bedlam. The stories, of course, collide, but could have occurred without The Mary Rose – since it was the characters that linked the stories, not where they were.

The characters, aside of the ones we know, felt less polished than in others in the series. Heartstone has an evil lawyer in opposition to Shardlake and plenty of corrupt officials. All dark to Shardlake’s light. The advancement of the story relied more on coincidences and the belligerence of Shardlake – and even that wore thin to his loyal Jack Barack. Barack voiced frustration that I was feeling.

It will come as no surprise to those who know their history that The Mary Rose sunk, and this was something that Heartstone was heading towards. C. J.  Sansom’s detail, as referenced, was thick and doubtless accurate. Many details are sewn from the exhibits of the excellent Mary Rose Museum. What felt fabricated was how the hunchback lawyer extricated himself from the battle, and from a sinking ship. In fact, throughout the book, one had a sense that many more would have been murdered for less than he interfered with, with or without the Queen’s protection. Shardlake was the lawyer with nine lives.

Of all the books in the series, the outstanding Dissolution was the one that hooked me, and Revelation the one that still haunts me. Heartstone I fear will be more easily forgotten. I know there is another in the series to read, but Shardlake seems to be running out of steam. It must be nearly time for him to retire.